Love Leads the Way was only the third Disney Channel Premiere Film, following Tiger Town and Gone Are the Dayes. The film was directed by Delbert Mann, an experienced Oscar winner who had worked in television since 1949. One of the most serious ’80s Disney Channel films, Love Leads the Way is based on a true story. Morris Frank (played by Timothy Bottoms) was the first American to have a Seeing Eye dog. He chronicled this experience in a book called The First Lady of the Seeing Eye, and Frank co-founded the first school for Seeing Eye dogs in the United States.
In the movie, set in the 1920s, we see Morris Frank become blind as a young man during a boxing accident. However, the real-life Frank reportedly lost sight in his right eye first, due to a horseback riding accident at age six. (I read that his mother was blind, as well.) Throughout Love Leads the Way, Morris Frank is determined to live and work independently, which is incredibly difficult in his Nashville neighborhood. In real life and in the film, an article written by trainer Dorothy Eustis (played by Eva Marie Saint) for The Saturday Evening Post changes the course of Frank’s life. “From the very small beginnings of becoming absolutely house-broken, [a dog] is taken step by step upward to his [life’s] work of leading a blind man, of being that man’s eyes and his sword and buckler,” wrote Eustis. Frank travels to Switzerland to work with Eustis and train his dog, Buddy (played by Berka the German Shepherd). Buddy must learn how to safely guide his owner through town, avoiding obstacles and staying aware of traffic.
Later in the film, Morris Frank advocates for Seeing Eye dogs to be permissible in public places. In real life, Morris Frank coincidentally made Morristown, New Jersey, the headquarters for the Seeing Eye, which still trains Seeing Eye dogs and operates as a philanthropic organization. The movie weaves a romantic story into Frank’s activism, with the carelessness of his ex replaced by the kindness of his collaborator and new girlfriend.
While Love Leads the Way debuted on cable in 1984, there was a special premiere in New York, then one in Nashville. Critic Bob Foster called the movie “Disney at its best.” Wolf Schneider reported that as the film was released on VHS, Walt Disney Home Video pledged $10,000 in charitable donations to benefit blind individuals. The price for that tape in 1984? $69.95! If you have this moving story on videocassette, I’d love to hear from you. You can find this important Disney Channel Premiere Film on YouTube, otherwise.